For the second time in six months, Dr Liam Fox sold out the Capital Club, the go-to venue in the Dubai International Financial Centre.
Back in March, as a former member of the British government with impeccable centre-right credentials, he told a big audience of expatriate business leaders why the UK should vote to leave the European Union.
Earlier this week, now as minister for international trade in the post-Brexit cabinet of British prime minister Theresa May, Dr Fox was back to boast about his foresight in predicting a Brexit win, and to map out the future for Britain’s trade relations with the Arabian Gulf region when the country finally leaves the EU.
You could not fault his optimism, nor his confidence.
The Brexit vote was “an historic example of democracy in action”, he said, that meant Britain was “open for business like never before”.
Britain’s destiny was to become the “brightest beacon and champion for open trade and global liberalisation”, and the Gulf region had a major part to play in that future, he insisted.
He said there were 31 “big ticket” trade deals already lined up in the region involving British companies. His trip was designed to assess opportunities and to pave the way for future trade deals that would replace some of the commerce that will inevitably quit Britain in the wake of Brexit.
In meetings with top level Emirati policymakers, he was not negotiating new trade deals, let alone a free trade agreement; that would be contrary to EU law, to which Britain is still subject until it completes the convoluted process of Brexit.
But he was in discussions with them as potential partners in the post-Brexit future. Meetings with senior executives at Emirates airline and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority were whispered about by his confidants.
The UAE was only one stop on his first overseas visit as new trade minister, which also included trips to Bahrain and Qatar. Saudi Arabia will await another visit, vaguely pencilled in for the next month or so, his aides suggested.
But despite all the post-Brexit we-told-you-so chutzpah, there was still an air of uncertainty and trepidation about his performance in the Capital Club, a feeling of “be careful what you wish for”.
Britain was “taking back control”, he insisted, but to those of the audience who might be feeling some concern at the level of change ahead, he was careful to point out that Britain is still, for the time being at least, in the EU, and did not intend to “turn its back” on Europe even after a formal exit. “We want Europe to succeed, but not to be governed by it,” he insisted.
That kind of reassurance went down well with the Capital crowd, who were by no means all convinced Brexiters.
At a debate in the club in May, the result was a conclusive vote to remain in the EU.
Dr Fox knows the UAE well. As he said in his speech, he first visited the country in 1993, and he had made regular visits ever since, especially in his previous capacity as defence minister. He did not remind the audience, but one of those visits set in train a string of events that eventually led to his resignation as a minister in 2011.
He comes back rearmed with the international trade portfolio, and with his transatlantic global perspective reaffirmed, but with a new imperative to widen the UK’s world horizon. The UAE, he told the crowd, is the right place to be doing that.
The new Silk Road, the geographical location of the UAE at the crossroads of global trading routes, and Dubai’s forthcoming staging of Expo 2020 were all cited as examples of why the UK should be looking to the region as a post-Brexit comfort.
He was confident of the future of the UK-UAE relationship, he said, for three reasons.
First, the “incredible collaboration” that existed between Britain and the Gulf region meant that UK exports to the GCC countries stood at more than £20 billon (Dh95.5bn), more than British exports to China and double that to India. The UAE itself is the UK’s fourth largest market outside Europe and exports have risen 37 per cent since 2009.
And it is not a one-way relationship, he stressed. “The UAE is a huge investor in Britain. Abu Dhabi [has] committed to invest in urban regeneration in Manchester, the Manchester Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, and have already invested over £1bn in UK offshore wind,” he added.
Health care, finance, education and aerospace were all sectors where closer relationships between the UAE and UK “would unlock some serious potential”, he said.
The second reason for his optimism lay in the psychological effect of the Brexit vote. Parodying Francis Fukuyama’s “End Of History” thesis, he said the modern commercial world was a better example of the “end of geography”.
“We are not leaving Europe; we are rejoining the rest of the world … The UK has always been a confident and outward-looking nation: always refusing to be constrained by our size or our island status,” he insisted.
Finally he was confident that the department of state he runs is up to the job of steering the UK through to a new global commercial position outside the EU. “Trade has taken its rightful place at the heart of government policymaking and at the heart of the structures of Whitehall.
“UK Export Finance – the government’s export credit agency, which now sits in my department – will continue to be on hand to ensure that no export to the UAE fails because of lack of finance or insurance. It has already offered finance for billion dollar infrastructure projects, including the Al Maktoum Airport and Expo 2020, and it will continue its great work,” he said.
He got a respectable round of applause, but afterwards there was a feeling he had not tackled head-on some of the big questions on the minds of the British business community in the UAE, nor the concerns of other business people – Emirati and global – about the post-Brexit future.
Perhaps he had been obliged to water down his message by London, in the wake of a recent controversial speech, leaked by the media, that criticised British business executives as “fat and lazy”.
Nonetheless, the questions the Capital Club audience would have liked to put included:
Will it be a “hard” or “soft” Brexit? Will there be new visa arrangements for travel to the UK? Will foreign banks located in London’s financial centre retain their access to Europe? Will the concerns of UK human rights activists and anti-defence lobbyists hinder the new UK initiative in the Gulf?
Dr Fox looks certain to be spending quite a bit of time in the Gulf in the next few months, so there is every chance those issues will be raised with him again.
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